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Tutorial: Paint a Portrait from Scratch

Tutorial: Paint a Portrait from Scratch

Originally Published October 2010

Back when I painted watercolors and drew with colored pencils, I worked from photographs. I would trace a photo, and then painstakingly transfer the tracing onto a sheet of drawing or watercolor paper. This whole process took days. When I started using Corel Painter, I discovered the Clone Color function right away. Painter makes it very easy to copy a photograph. In fact, if you use the Straight Cloner brush, you will make an exact copy of the source photograph, as if you had duplicated the file.

ic:Great Horned Owl, by Bob Nolin. This was one of the last traditional-media works I did before switching to digital. Medium: ink, watercolor, acrylic, and colored pencil. It took FOREVER.

When you copy a photograph using traditional media, as I used to, the goal is to match the photograph. When you use Painter’s Cloning function, the goal is to make the photograph look like a painting. And that’s not so easy to do, when you rely on the cloning tools. Recently, I’ve been relying on the cloning tools less and less. I’ve been painting freehand more, mixing and using my own colors, not necessarily the ones in the photograph. In my latest project, I decided to return to my old way of working: trace the photograph, and start with nothing more than a line drawing on a blank canvas. Creating the drawing was the easy part. I used the method I described in this article, using the Medium filter. This is yet one more thing I love about working digitally: how it saves you time and effort, and allows you to concentrate on making art.

I chose an image of Russell Crowe from the recent movie “Robin Hood.” The image has a ton of detail, especially in the clothing, and would’ve taken a long time to trace and transfer. The Minimum filter did a great job for me in about two minutes. Once the line drawing is done, it’s simply a matter of matching colors to the photo (using the eye dropper judiciously). This is not the only way to do this, of course. Others more talented than I don’t use a line drawing, but instead paint directly, refining and adding detail until the work is done. I can’t work that way–not yet, anyway! Besides, this is how most professional illustrators work. If it was good enough for Norman Rockwell, it’s good enough for me!

ic: Line art created by the Photoshop Minimum filter, using the photo (inset) as input.

I should mention the size, since it’s important. This painting was around 6000 pixels wide, at 300 ppi. One lesson I learned back in my graphic design days is that it’s best to work much larger, and then reduce the final image. This makes logos–and paintings–look much better. The work has more polish when you reduce it down. For “Robin Hood,” the large size meant I could really zoom in on details, and then when I pulled back, they looked great. Make sure the source photo is equally large. One of the problems with working from images found on the Internet is that they tend to be low resolution, like 300 pixels wide at 72 ppi. This image of Crowe was about 850 pixels wide at 72 ppi, and I enlarged it to 6000 pixels at 300 ppi. It was pretty pixelated, but clear enough to work from.

ic:Use three layers, keeping the painting separate from the line art and the canvas.

As shown above, I used three layers. The lineart sits on the top of the stack, with a blending mode of Multiply, which causes the white portions of the line art layer to become transparent. Next, in the middle, is a blank, transparent layer. This is where the actual painting will be done. And the bottom layer is a solid color. Choose a middle-value color for this, one that sits somewhere equally between black and white. I chose a grey-green color, and made it darker towards the end, as shown here. I find it helpful to work against the middle, so that I’m either darkening or lightening as I paint. If you use a white ground (canvas), it’s harder to judge values properly. Not everyone agrees with this method, of course, but this has been a tried and true method for hundreds of years. Give it a try.

Important: lock the top and bottom layers, so you don’t accidentally paint on the drawing or the background color. Towards the end, I decided to create a blurry forest scene for my background. That was easily done: just replace the layer with a suitable forest scene, which I created separately. If part of the painting was on the background layer, I would have been stuck with that background. Whether you work in Photoshop or Painter, take advantage of the layer locks. Painter loses them, by the way, after closing the file. You’ll need to relock each time you open the file to paint.

ic:This shows the painting at an early stage. You're looking at three layers at once here: line art, painting, and background color.

Another advantage of working digitally is the ability to have the line art sit “above” the painting. In traditional painting, the paint quickly covers over the lines, since everything is on one “layer”: the canvas. With this digital method, the lines remain visible as long as you require them. Towards the end, you’ll begin to turn the line art layer off, to see what areas need refining. When it was done, I eliminated the line art altogether. If you prefer a more stylized approach, such as with cartoons or graphic work, you might leave the lines layer intact, as part of the finished work. You have the freedom to do what seems best, with digital. It takes a little getting used to, because you’re painting right on top of the lines, but they aren’t affected at all!

ic:All this detail was painted with one brush, at varying sizes. I didn't use textures on this, though I could have.

To be successful at this, you need to be patient, and take your time. Zoom way in and work those details. I use a modified version of the Smooth Charcoal brush in Painter, but you can use a soft brush in Photoshop just as well. You can see a more detailed step-by-step here, at my Deviant Art gallery. Here’s the final painting, with the background replaced. I hope you enjoyed this little adventure with Robin Hood. Let me know if you have questions, or comments. Thanks for reading!

ic:Russell Crowe as Robin Hood, by Bob Nolin. Painter X. 

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